Playing chess against a computer (2020)

Playing chess against a computer

In a previous post about chess motivation,  I wrote a section about the importance of playing and studying.   In this post,  I will focus on how playing chess against a computer can help improve your game.

The challenges with classical chess

Playing under classical time controls is the best way to improve your game. The problem is finding an opponent who is willing to dedicate the time to play with you. Most people don’t have an hour or two to spend playing chess several times a week. They might play in a local tournament, but are unavailable for anything outside of that. Additionally, it is hard for people to maintain their motivation to play classical chess on a consistent basis. There are so many daily distractions both at home and work that prevent players from committing to a regular play schedule.

A computer as your next chess opponent

Playing chess against a computer chess engine is an exercise in defeat. They are simply too strong. Programs like Stockfish (3500 ELO) offer reduced playing levels but even those are hard to beat. Then there is the psychological advantage. Unlike humans, chess engines do not blunder pawns or hang pieces. They don’t lose their mental focus the way a human does. And while they can be configured to play weak moves, it is still on the human to convert their advantage to a win. Computers never quit or get discouraged either and that shows in their play.

Even with these shortcomings, playing chess against a computer has its rewards too. Because they are so accurate (even at lower playing levels), you will not be able to rely on your opponent crumbling after they lose a pawn or two. Ultimately, this will help your technique and make your victory feel more rewarding.

Computers don’t have scheduling conflicts. They won’t complain about how many times you want to play them. They are the best alternative if you want to play slow games on a consistent basis. Using Chessbase’s interface to play Fritz and other UCI engines is fine but there are other alternatives too.

I consider the Chessmaster series the best programs to play if you are rated under 2200. They are designed for chess amateurs and offer a wide range of playing styles that mimic human play. So, consider using some of these programs to challenge yourself and improve your game. Playing chess against a computer has never been easier.

Chessmaster XI – your new chess sparring partner

Playing chess against a computer (2020)

Released in 2007, Chessmaster XI: Grandmaster Edition (CM11) is the latest in a series of dating back over 25 years. Unfortunately, this is difficult to find online. Try Ebay. Unlike the professional chess engines (Stockfish, Houdini, Komodo), the King engine that runs Chessmaster has an ELO around 3000 – still high enough to beat any player. But this isn’t the reason I am suggesting it. CM11 has built-in personalities designed for players at every level. Each personality has a name, a rating and a unique playing style. There is also a small write-up that explains the background of the “person” you are playing. For example:

Playing chess against a computer (2020)
A native New Yorker, Turk was raised on the mean streets and learned to play chess at a local boy`s club. Thus saved from a life of crime, Turk is nonetheless a street hustler, occasionally selling discount wares, but mostly eking out a living by challenging all comers to speed chess matches, $5.00 a game, in Washington Square.

Not only does it have a customized rating but a unique playing style too. Choose a personality that fits your playing strength and style. For me, I got crushed by Turk a few years ago and I want a revenge match. More on that in another post.

Playing chess against a computer – star in your own tournament

I use ChessMaster XI to play a series of games against one of its built-in personalities. These are customized settings where the program plays at a reduced strength. All games are played under classical chess time controls. I decide on the number of games (usually 5-7 games) and treat the event like a real tournament.  I even write down my moves. This is good practice for those of you who haven’t played in an official tournament.  It will also increase your chess motivation.

To make playing the game manageable, I give the computer 30 seconds per move while giving myself an infinite amount of time.  I don’t actually use that time though.  It just allows me the flexibility to walk away and do some household chores and then come back to the game later.  I find the quality of my play is as close to a real tournament as I can get.  

After my game is finished, it’s natural for me to want to know where I went wrong. Curiosity leads to chess motivation. This is the benefit of slow play — the ideas you had running through your head for the past couple of hours can now be dumped into a database for further analysis. So, in this case, playing leads to study.

Fidelity Chessmaster 2100

Playing chess against a computer (2020)

This is an old version of Chessmaster first released in 1989. You can play it for free online, here. This doesn’t have the feature-rich capabilities of CM11 but it’s still a lot of fun to play. I played a couple of games against games against it that I posted below.

Playing chess against a computer like CM2100 is still tough. Notice how it almost exclusively relies on tactical threats throughout the game.

Try playing a few games yourself and let me know how you do. Post your thoughts in the comments below.

Your chess development plan (2-steps)

Chess development. Analyzing your chess games.

Introduction

Analyzing your chess games has to be done honestly and objectively. I’ve written in previous posts the methods we use at Better Chess to analyze games. That is good advice to follow but it is also specific to how we present games to our audience. What about analyzing your own games? The approach is similar and can be distilled down to two steps:

The 2-step approach to start your chess development plan

  1. Review your games.  Follow the steps in my previous post regarding how to play through and annotate your game.  Don’t use an engine right away.  Play through variations you were considering during the game first.  Then, use an engine to check your analysis.
  2. Make a list of the areas in your play that you find the most concerning.  Keep the list somewhere you will see it.  Read the list each time you begin your chess studies.  This is your chess development plan. 

Let’s start with an example.  

I recently came in third place in a Lichess.org tournament.  I chose two of my  worst games that I will share below. It’s tough to look at your losses.  They bring up memories of mistakes you would like to forget.  But it’s important to remember.   Identifying your weak areas is critical to chess development.  

Game #23 – Passive play leads to a blunder

Tarrasch Defense – [D34]
Crossroads Invitational XV Arena
3 minutes 2 sec. blitz

Game #24 – Plan your transition to the endgame

Sicilian Defense – Unusual moves [B20]
Crossroads Invitational XV Arena
3 minutes 2 sec. blitz

Analyzing your chess games – create “The List”

All goals should be written. The same is true for your chess goals. A chess development plan comes from analyzing your chess games. Write down what you find during this analysis. If you find you are consistently hanging pawns, put it on the list.

My chess development plan – The list of improvements I need to make:

Passive play. I find myself making random moves like h4 just for the sake of moving with no strategy behind it. This needs to be eliminated. From now on, I want to make sure every pawn move has a purpose behind it. If I can’t find a purpose, I will focus on improving the scope of my pieces or creating a better defense.

Trading pieces too quickly. There are only a limited number of pieces on the chessboard. Careful consideration should be given to trading pieces without understanding the strategic reason as to why.

Stop hanging pawns. This often happens because I think that I remember the main line of an opening but am in error. The second game saw my hang the e5 pawn without too much of a fight. I must look at my opponents moves and see what they are threatening.

When it comes to openings be careful of what I remember. As mentioned in my previous point, I put too much emphasis on positions that I think I understand without really calculating what the best move should be. Analyzing your chess games should focus on ideas, not memorizing a sequence of moves. All positions need to be analyzed carefully no matter how confident I am of the position.

Understand the ideas behind the Catalan. This opening always seems to get the better of me. While browsing through my chess library, I came across a book called, Strategic Chess by Edmar Mednis. It explains the ideas behind the Catalan, King’s Indian and several closed openings. I need to review the games specific to the Catalan to improve my results against this opening.

Minor piece endings. The bane of all amateur players. In game#2 I was too quick to trade down to a Bishop vs Knight ending without assessing whether I was worse or not. After playing Rad1 and Black replying Rad8, I am under no obligation to trade. In fact, smarter moves like Kg2 might be what is required to improve my position. The King plays a role in the ending so getting it closer to the center can make a big difference. Minor piece endings are critical for a chess development plan.

Stay focused. This is good advice for anyone at any level. In my case, I tend to get very discouraged when I am down a pawn. Losing a pawn is rarely the end of a game, particularly in an amateur game. Good chess players are fighters. If I hang a pawn, I need to continue to fight.

Pace myself. This is more of a blitz chess critique. I constantly find myself running low on time. Playing safe, solid moves should be done quickly. Long thinks are inevitable but only during critical phases of the game.

Conclusion

When you finish analyzing your chess games, create a list of weaknesses. Make sure you keep it up to date. Look at it before you begin your chess studies. Your chess development plan is a living document. Once you see a pattern of mistakes in your games, it’s time to update it. I’ll write more about this in future posts.

Do you have a chess development plan? Please share you thoughts below.

Finding your chess motivation

Chess motivation is different for everyone.  Here are some tips.

Most players agree that to improve at chess it takes a combination of playing and study. Both are needed to harness your chess motivation but players often prefer one over the other. Some players (myself included) really enjoy reading chess books and playing over grandmaster games. Others, find that about as exciting as watching paint dry – they prefer playing.

Practice makes perfect and is the best way to improve but study can help you avoid road blocks before you ever encounter them. For example, understanding rook and pawn endings will save you time if you are presented with that ending in one of your games. Whichever camp you are in, finding your chess motivation to play and study is important to make you a well rounded player.

Playing

People play chess because they like to compete and improve their play. For me, it really doesn’t matter who I play, so long as I feel that I am learning something. Finding motivation to play blitz chess isn’t too hard. You can logon to a dozen chess Internet sites and get paired with an opponent right away. Blitz is fun and exciting but most people would agree it won’t increase your playing strength the same way classical chess does though. So, how do you sacrifice your chess motivation (not to mention adrenaline rush) of a fast paced game with the intellectual benefits of a slow game? For me, it’s simulating a tournament.

Play-by-email chess

Keeping your mind sharp is important. If you don’t have the time for blitz and slow time controls are not for you, enroll in Chess.com’s play-by-email tournament.  Playing multiple games at a time with 3-days-per-move time control is a good way to expand your board vision and help your calculating skills. You need only spend a few minutes calculating your move. Once you submit it you can have another few days before your next move is required. This is a casual way of playing quality chess without spending large chunks of time in front of a physical (or virtual) chessboard.

Studying

Part of my commitment to chess is finding an hour each day to study. It doesn’t have to be all at one time though. I often use 15 minute blocks here and there. Below are some elements that make up my study program. I like to mix things up but tactics and endgame training happen every day!

  • Tactics.  The most important skill to keep sharp.  LiChess (10-20 problems)
  • Endgame training.  Read endgame books. Practice knight vs bishop endings on Lichess.
  • Game collection study. Play over a game from a world class player: Alekhine, Capablanca, Kramnik, Anand, Karpov, Kasparov etc.  Top players suggest playing over a game 3 times.  The first time is to understand the general strategies of each player.  The second review is to play through the annotations thoroughly.  The third is to come up with your own ideas and test them against an engine to see why they do or do not work.
  • Openings. I list this last but I spend some time trying to understand opening ideas that I might have missed during my playing sessions.

Some players find it difficult to study chess. A friend of mine describes chess study as the equivalent to “prison reading” — something they might do if they were serving a life sentence. I get it. Part of the thrill of chess is the competition. You want to beat another player and you want to see if the time you invest in chess is improving your results. Looking over the games from grandmaster tournaments might improve your understanding of chess but it is a completely different mind set.

Fortunately for us, the Internet has made chess study much easier. Playing over well annotated games of the masters is considered the best way to develop your playing style but there are other options too. One of them is YouTube. Many grandmasters stream their online play on gaming services like Twitch and archive their sessions onto YouTube. If you lack the motivation to crack open a chess book, try some of these YouTube Channels. They are certain to boost your chess motivation.

My Favorite YouTube Channels

GM Hikaru Nakamura – there aren’t too many 2800’s who share their strategies while they’re playing. He is one of them. Check out his speed run series to see how he cuts through the competition on his way to 3000 ELO. He’s great at using visual arrows to show his audience what he’s planning and the ideas behind his opening choices.

Agadmator. While not a GM, agadmator spends time going through classic chess matches. Here, he is presenting the World Chess Championship Match of 1960 (Tal vs. Botvinnik). If you prefer visual learning to reading a book, this channel is for you.

Chess.com. This is the world’s largest chess playing site. There are lots of quality videos on their YouTube page ranging from live chess tournaments to post game analysis.

Conclusion

To get better at chess you need to play and study. Fortunately for us, we have a wide range of options available to us. Chess software can be customized to play you at your own level. Online chess provides ways for you to play others and learn visually without ever touching a chess book.

I hope these ideas stimulate your chess motivation!

How do you handle your chess motivation? Please share with us in the comments section below.

Crushed: Losing to a titled player (Game#21 & 22)

Losing to a titled player.

Losing to a titled player is tough. They don’t fall for the same tricks that lesser opponents do. They see much deeper into the position. They parry all of your threats quickly and effortlessly. It’s an uphill battle from the start. Additionally, a titled player’s moves are purposeful. Their pieces occupy good squares that contain their opponent’s pieces . For me, playing a titled player is like playing with a boa constrictor. You are either bitten by tactics or squeezed through positional play. Either way is not fun.

Losing is the best way to learn. In fact, no real improvement can happen unless you experience regular losses. Sometimes, the way you are beaten is more important than the loss itself. Stronger opponents bring out your weaknesses more than playing someone your own strength. So, if you have the opportunity to play a titled chess master, do it. See how he or she handles your play and learn from it. Losing is also a lesson in humility – something all chess players need, regardless of playing strength.

I am lucky to be able to play opponents rated between 2200-2300 ELO on a regular basis. It’s always interesting to me how I lose. Ironically, it is the same way I win against players lower-rated than me. I hit them with a tactical shot which usually wins a piece or the exchange, or I capture too many pawns that gets them into a lost ending. These next two blitz games are perfect examples of this. Always analyze your games to uncover weaknesses in your game.

Reti Opening [A05]
Lichess.org
3 minutes 2 sec. blitz

Post-Mortem Analysis: Losing to a Titled Player (Game#21)

Don’t just move pieces for the sake of moving them. Randomly moving pieces to the kingside did not protect King. Like everything, calculation needs to happen before a piece is committed to defense. Moves like 27. Nd1 are pointless if they don’t have a purpose. Piece proximity to an attack is not enough to defend against it.

Think about the ending. Placing all my pawns on light-squares is something I should have been aware of – particularly when my opponent has a light-squared bishops. Trading down material led to a quick loss.

Missed defensive opportunities. Finding 22. g5 is important. It stops the pawn storm and freezes Black’s attack. When you find yourself worse in a position like this, I find it’s best to take on your opponents perspective to the exclusion of all else. Like many amateurs, I never give my attacker the credit he or she deserves. “My attack is all that really matters”. It’s an arrogance I need to get rid of if I plan on getting to the 2200 level. In this case, losing to a titled player showed me my poor decision-making is not limited to players of my own strength!

English Opening Symmetrical Variation [A39]
Lichess.org
3 minutes 2 sec. blitz

Post-Mortem Analysis: Losing to a titled player (Game#22)

Leave pieces on good squares. Moving my knight away from c5 was a terrible mistake. Sometimes pieces should be left on good squares to radiate their power across the board. The knight was serving well for me on c5 as it helps prepare a4 which would have led to equality.

Do not take pawns indiscriminately. Taking the e-pawn was done quickly and without thought. The a-pawn is the problem here so taking the a2 pawn is more in the spirit of the position. I’m still much worse but at least it’s a fight.


There is no shame in losing to a titled player. But that doesn’t mean you should expect to lose. Play hard and pay extra attention to the moves your opponent makes. To be honest, it is often easier for me to understand the moves of a titled player than someone under 2200.

The reason for this is that the 2200-player often makes moves that have purpose whether that is increasing the pressure on a pinned piece or simply repositioning a knight where it will have greater impact on the position. The bottom line is that we all need to learn from stronger players. Don’t be intimidated if you wind up losing to a titled player. Make him earn the win and know that either way you are likely to learn something!

Gameknot 188th Tournament Part III (Games#19 & 20)

Improving your chess results - Gameknot 188th tournament Part III

Improving your chess results – play stronger moves

Improving your chess results begins when you start to play meaningful moves. Passive play happens when you make a move that does not help your position. For example, instead of developing a piece towards the center of the board, you play a pawn move that weakens your king position. The amateur level is filled with these kinds of inefficient moves. Making too many passive moves leads to defeat. Each time you make a move, you have to ask yourself: what is the purpose of this move?

The “Loverustler” was my third opponent for round one round of the Gameknot 188th tournament Part III. You’ve got to love the creativity of his handle! Both games contain instructive themes. The first game shows how having a dominating center can overwhelm your opponent. This is especially true when his King is vulnerable.

The second game shows how to improve your endgame technique. Understanding endgame play will get you one step closer to improving your chess results. I was up two pawns in the late middlegame but had some struggles converting the win. We’ll discuss the passive move mindset and how to play more actively – even when you’re winning.

Game #19 – Building a strong center

Reti Opening [A05]
188th Gameknot tournament
2 days per move

Occupying the center is a goal of any chess player. Amateurs are taught to move their center pawns early. They do this to claim space and crowd their opponents development. It is a fundamental concept towards improving your chess results.

In this game, my opponent never contested the center. He played fringe moves. One was focused on attacking my h3 pawn. The other was designed to start a queenside minority attack. In each case, these passive moves were not enough to counter White’s strong pawn center.

Takeaways from Game #19 (Gameknot 188th tournament Part III)

Contest the center. By not playing 8…e5, Black was in store for a cramped game. Notice how many of his moves were made on the periphery. Qc8 was one example of this. That’s because center control allows piece mobility. If you don’t control the center, your pieces are less effective. Look at Black’s rook on f8. It was idle for 25 moves. The rook was later lost in an exchange sacrifice before ever participating in Black’s defensive effort.

Piece placement is worth more than a pawn. This is a personal critique for my capturing the b7 pawn. In order to improve my game, I need to understand the role that active pieces can have on a position. Playing 20. Be4 was a sublte but important nuance. The g6 square is the biggest problem in Black’s position. Piling up on that square was the correct plan for White.


Game #20 – Passive moves often help your opponent

Improving your chess results can be frustrating. We are taught to develop pieces, control the center and avoid passive play. That sounds pretty straightforward. But then we are warned about being too aggressive or overextending our pieces. So, how do we play quality chess without being guilty of some failure along the way.

The truth is, every amateur chess game has failings of some kind. Labeling a move as bad (or good) is fine so long as there is case to support such a claim. Evaluating a good or bad requires evidence. We can learn that only through analysis. We review our games and then make conclusions based on our findings.

That’s what is great about chess. Random ideas can’t be accepted on good faith. They have to be proven. And that can only happen by replaying your games.

In this next game, you’ll see how my opponents passive play helped fuel my attack.

Sicilian Defense, Smith Morra Gambit[B21]
188th Gameknot tournament
2 days per move

Takeaways from Game#20 (Gameknot 188th tournament Part III)

Even one passive move can lead to trouble. White played the passive 10. a3 Stockfish suggested 10. h3 instead. Why is a3 a passive move and not h3? As I mentioned above, a case has to be made. h3 prevents Bg4 and prepares Bf4, giving the bishop a retreat square to h2 when needed. The move a3 prepares b4 which is a mistake given the strength of Black’s dark squared bishop and does nothing to improve his position.

Active play over passive defense. My decision to protect and later liquidate the d6 pawn was not a good one. Seizing open files and breaking up th a3-b4 pawn chain was more productive.

This concludes the first round of Gameknot 188th Tournament Part III. I hope you learned something from these games and they helped you towards improving your chess results. I was fortunate to get a perfect score. Let’s see if my luck holds out in Round 2.